Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Postsecondary Success

White paper: “Postsecondary Success Advocacy Priorities” (2016)

Today, we as a nation are facing the reality that for many, that bridge has become too narrow and too hard to navigate, with a toll that is too high. Rising costs and debt, stubbornly high dropout rates, and persistent attainment gaps threaten higher education’s ability to meet societal and workforce needs. Recent estimates show that the nation will need 11 million more workers with some form of high-quality post-high school education by 2025 than our system is currently on course to produce. (Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, analysis prepared for the foundation, 2014.)

Just as importantly, those workers will be largely drawn from the new majority of students—low-income and first-generation students, students of color, and working adults—who have historically faced the highest hurdles getting to and through college. Advancing equity in educational opportunity is both an economic necessity and a moral imperative.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Postsecondary Success strategy is built on the belief that significant, sustained, and student-centered change is required for higher education to live up to its potential as an engine of economic development and social mobility. The strategy is dedicated to building human capital by closing attainment gaps, focusing on three levers for bringing about that change:

> Innovative solutions such as digital learning, technology-enabled advising, and streamlined academic pathways that help students navigate some of the most common barriers to achieving a credential today.

> Robust networks that support widespread implementation and integration of these solutions—providing implementation support, examples of leading practice, resource sharing, and guidance and leadership on advocacy. Experience shows that real change affecting student outcomes depends on a combination of innovative approaches; there are no “silver bullets.”

> Powerful incentives that move campuses and systems to adopt and integrate solutions for student success and/or remove barriers to those efforts. These include the use of data to highlight success gaps and measure the effectiveness of solutions, as well as financing mechanisms such as outcome-based funding and financial aid for students. They also include policy advocacy at the federal and state levels. (Focus states for the Postsecondary Success strategy include: California, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington.)

In 2015, Postsecondary Success released its first-ever statement of policy advocacy priorities. This document is an update to that statement, reflecting advances in both program and policy, and noting what is still to be learned and done. The statement addresses both federal and state policy, recognizing that the strategy’s work at the federal level is more mature and that state efforts are heavily focused on evidence gathering at this point in time. At both levels, policy advocacy focuses on three key areas:


Efforts to significantly boost college access and success are hindered by missing measures, competing definitions of the same measure, and disconnected data systems. The foundation’s advocacy efforts in this area focus on both federal and state policy, seeking to build a truly national strategy for gathering, reporting, and using key performance measures that reflect the experiences and outcomes of all college students, especially returning and transfer students
who are too often rendered invisible in current data systems.

There is growing consensus in the field about what to measure, which makes the conversation about gathering and using that information increasingly important and urgent. A comprehensive strategy for improving data infrastructure and capacity within and across institutional, state, and federal collections is essential to supporting initiatives aimed at achieving our attainment goals. Better data and data systems can lead to better decision-making—by students, policymakers, and educators alike—that lead to better postsecondary outcomes for all.


College affordability—for students and for taxpayers—continues to be a subject of public and policymaker concern. Mounting tuition and debt levels, coupled with ongoing fiscal constraints at the federal and state levels, are raising questions of sustainability and consequences. How long can these trends be sustained? Who will be harmed most if there is not a change in course?

At the federal level, the foundation’s advocacy priorities include simplifying the processes of applying for and allocating student financial aid, ensuring that aid dollars are targeted to students with the greatest need, and ensuring that aid programs provide strong institutional and student incentives for enrollment, persistence, and completion. There has been progress in this area, particularly with respect to the aid application process, but much more remains to be done.

In the states, the focus is twofold: (a) supporting states in reviewing and revising their funding models for public institutions to ensure better and more equitable student outcomes; and (b) supporting states in developing and implementing financial aid programs, policies, and practices that take into account the changing needs of today’s students.


For too many students, the path to a credential is longer than it should be, or simply leads to a dead end. Poorly targeted remedial courses and programs, unclear or conflicting signals about what courses to take or when to take them, and weak or non-existent transfer and articulation policies consume scarce resources and contribute to student dropout. Innovations that address these issues are being developed but still exist largely at the margins.

The foundation’s federal advocacy in this area is limited, and deals primarily with incentives for institutional experimentation with and evaluation of new academic models designed to streamline the path to a credential, such as competency-based education. At the state level, areas of focus include promoting statewide efforts to redesign remedial education, establishing well-defined paths to certificates and degrees in key fields, and implementing and enforcing robust transfer and articulation policies.

2017 will bring significant change to the policy landscape, with a new administration and Congress at the federal level and a number of new governors and legislators in the states. The foundation will engage with them on the full range of issues outlined in this document, connected by a common message: as a nation, we face significant choices about the direction of our higher education system and whether it will be a bridge to opportunity or a reproducer of privilege. The actions taken—or not taken—in our nation’s capital and in state capitals will have a significant impact on which direction is chosen.

Read the full “Postsecondary Success Advocacy Priorities” white paper (2016).